A dismasted yacht has been rescued by a newly wed couple and their crew after drifting for three days in the Atlantic
The 28ft French vessel was spotted on Sunday by Alfie and Ceylan Moore, who were sailing across the Atlantic on the ARC+ rally with friend Stu Finch and Alfie’s mum Adele Jeal. They were 140 miles away from Grenada when they saw something unusual on the horizon.
“It was tiny, beam-on, and rolling around in the swell,” skipper Alfie told PBO. “At first we thought it was a fishing boat, but something was sticking out the back. When we got the binoculars we realised it was the windex of a sailing boat, but there was no mast. There was a pole hanging over the side.”
Alfie saved the position on the GPS. They dropped the sails of Coco, their 40ft Fontaine Pajot catamaran, and raced as fast as they could towards the vessel. As they approached they saw a man thought to be in his 50s waving a pink cloth. They tried to communicate with him by VHF, but got no response. They circled around him a couple of times to assess the situation and saw the man was in a bad way.
He had given up
“It was as though he had given up, he was ready to die and had accepted his fate,” said Alfie, “but then the adrenaline kicked in and he managed to hold up three fingers, which we assumed meant he’d been drifting for three days.”
They had difficulty communicating with the man, and tried to persuade him to come aboard and abandon the yacht. However, each time Alfie beckoned to the man, he shook his head. They were left with no choice but to tow him.
The French skipper put a fender on a line and drifted it towards Coco. Stu, an experienced delivery skipper, picked it up and tied it to the cleat. The minute the boat was attached, the French skipper fell to his knees in tears.
However, there was a great deal of snatch on the lines, and Alfie was concerned the port stern cleat would not be able to withstand the loads.
They emptied the lockers to find all the lines they could, laid them out in the cockpit, and rigged a bridle to distribute the loads, with fenders attached to the lines to keep them away from the props.
Lines too short
The lines were too short, and the crew feared that at any minute the yacht would surf down a wave and hit them. Twice the lines snapped before sunset, as seen in this dramatic video taken by Adele. The crew remained calm throughout and just got on with the job.
“Everyone just knew what to do,” said Alfie. “We didn’t even communicate, we just got on with it.”
As night fell, they encountered squall after squall – 40-knot winds and driving rain. In the pitch black, they couldn’t tell if the French skipper was still onboard, and knew only that the yacht was still attached by the stop-start motion of the catamaran in the steep seas, as the yacht snatched on the lines. Stu, at the helm, had to put the engine into gear and neutral accordingly, whilst Adele and Ceylan tried to keep watch by the light of a small diving torch.
Meanwhile, Alfie repeatedly tried to summon help from the coastguards on the satellite phone.
Told to cut him loose
“It was getting extremely dangerous. The boat was turning sideways and we could only tell which way he was from the light in his cabin,” he said. “I called Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago – every single one of them refused to come and get us. I said, ‘we’ve got one rope left, and if it snaps, we can’t do it’. One even said, ‘if you can’t tow him anymore, cut him loose’. We couldn’t do that. He would have died.”
Alfie flashed the torch and whistled at the French skipper to check he was still there. He whistled back. The yacht, a monohull, was acting like a huge sea anchor, and the tow rope kept getting caught under the French yacht’s keel and spinning it beam-on.
“We would be averaging 3 knots and suddenly we’d go down to 1 knot,” said Alfie, “That’s when we knew something had happened.”
At one point Coco stopped suddenly, and Stu was thrown against the door.
The French skipper was being tossed around the boat like a rag doll. He looked ‘vacant’ and was hugging the fender Alfie had given him. At one point he tried to tie the fender to the guardrail, despite Alfie’s protests that this was the least of their worries.
He went down below for long periods of time, leading the crew of Coco to worry he was sick. When he came out they tried to cheer him on, clapping him and shouting, “We can do this,” although the situation was distressing for them too.
As they neared Grenada they managed to get hold of the Susannah at the ARC office at Port Louis Marina, where most of the other yachts on the rally were moored. Susannah raised the alarm with the coastguard, who sent a boat out to assist.
Still doubting if the coastguard would arrive, Alfie was relieved to see fellow ARC+ yachts Chula and Big Bubble pop up on his AIS. Both called him on the VHF to offer words of support, and Big Bubble confirmed they’d seen the coastguard vessel speed by, which was an enormous relief. After more than 26 hours of towing, help was finally on its way.
“We were just exhausted,” said Stu. “Our decisions were getting worse. God knows what decisions we would have made if we’d had to take him any further.”
The worst moment of all
However, relief soon turned to dread as the coastguard vessel arrived and tried to raise the skipper of the French yacht. For 20 minutes they called him and stood-by, but he didn’t appear.
“That was the point when we were all thinking the worst,” said Stu. “After all we’d been through, we thought that we’d been towing an empty boat, that the man had died.”
Finally the man appeared and the coastguard threw him a thick tow-line. As soon as he’d attached it they sped off at full-speed.
“It was like a scene from the old whaler movies, when the whale is harpooned and takes off with the boat,” said Stu. “He was on his knees, hanging on for dear life and getting sprayed. That will wake him up, we thought!”
“We smiled for the first time in the 26 hours,” added Adele.
The crew all had a shower to try to relax, but every time they came off a wave, found themselves wincing, waiting for the sensation of the lines snatching and the boat being tugged back!
The French yacht was taken to Prickly Bay and Coco was met by the staff at Camper & Nicholsons Port Louis Marina, and given a rum punch.
“It was very good, and definitely worth coming to Grenada for the rum punch,” said Alfie this morning. “We’re going to have lunch now, and clean and tidy the boat tomorrow and assess the damage. The ARC massively helped us in the last part. It’s nice having people we can rely on ashore. Overall it was a great passage, a great crossing. We’re here in the Caribbean now and we can relax.”
As we went to press, the crew of Coco were recovering from their ordeal over lunch in the marina bar, and the French skipper, known only as David, was still onboard his yacht on a mooring buoy in St George, Grenada.
Charlotte Fairhead of Grenada Tourism visited David, who had a cut leg, but otherwise said he was well. As he isn’t vaccinated against Covid he’s confined to his boat whilst waiting for an exemption from Grenada’s Chief Medical Officer.
“He’s fine, he said he didn’t need medical assistance and has plenty of water and supplies,” said Charlotte. “He did ask for cigarettes. He confirmed he was on a three week-passage from French Guyana when he was dismasted and lost his rig.”
Follow Coco’s adventures
Alfie and Ceylan got married in July and plan to spend the next 5-10 years sailing the world. After 6 years spent renovating boats, shops and houses, they left London and sailed their 33ft Colvic Countess from the UK to Greece, before buying a Fountaine Pajot catamaran. You can follow Coco’s adventures on their YouTube channel Sailing Coco